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Streamlining Remote Sales Tax: Federal Action to Enhance Clarity and Coherence

Barkin Doganay · September 18, 2023 · 4 min read

Recent Developments

Until recently, e-commerce businesses located out of state were not obliged to collect sales taxes for transactions with in-state residents unless the business had a physical presence within the state. This changed in 2018, prompting states to rapidly introduce remote sales tax requirements.

However, this shift led to an intricate network of requirements, including diverse exemptions for certain small businesses across different states. This has consequently burdened businesses with significant compliance expenses and confusion while navigating these complex regulations.

It is suggested that the U.S. Congress consider formulating guidelines to standardize state taxation of remote sales, aiming to address these challenges.

Taxation Across Borders: The Remote Sales Conundrum

Findings by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair expanded states' authority to demand sales taxes from out-of-state (or remote) businesses, even without a physical presence. In response, states swiftly enacted remote sales tax requirements, culminating in a diverse and varied system of regulations. States established different thresholds for monetary and transactional requirements, leading to discrepancies in exemptions for small businesses.

Estimates, as of September 2022, indicate that remote sales tax collections reached approximately $30 billion in 2021. Businesses reported incurring costs related to software implementation for multi-state tax collection, expenses tied to audits due to increased tax jurisdiction exposure, and efforts to stay abreast of legal obligations in multiple jurisdictions.

The GAO has raised concerns about the current remote sales tax system on three key grounds:

  1. Equity: The principle of treating similar taxpayers similarly is challenged as multistate sellers navigate a maze of diverse requirements in various taxing jurisdictions. In contrast, brick-and-mortar sellers mainly grapple with the regulations of their physical location.
  2. Economic Efficiency: Remote sellers are forced to divert resources from their core operations and investments toward tax compliance. This is due to behavioral changes stemming from the need to avoid certain states' remote sales tax requirements by limiting sales to those areas.
  3. Simplicity, transparency, and administration: Businesses allocate substantial time and resources to comply with multistate remote sales tax rules. The plethora of requirements and variations make it difficult for businesses to grasp their tax obligations, and administrative costs are primarily borne by businesses collecting taxes on behalf of the jurisdictions.

Proposed Reforms and Ongoing Challenges

Various reform proposals have been suggested, ranging from incremental changes to comprehensive overhauls. Comprehensive reforms aim for nationwide adoption, while some incremental proposals could be adopted on a state-by-state basis or in a broader multistate context.

An incremental reform proposal suggests states adopt a single centralized point for registration, filing, administration, and audits. A comprehensive proposal proposes that states participating in taxing remote sales engage in an interstate collaborative mechanism to establish uniform standards and centralized processes.

While some states and multistate organizations have taken steps toward implementing incremental reforms, no comprehensive approach has been fully embraced. Individual state actions assist specific businesses in complying with state-specific remote sales tax requirements, but the overall complexity remains unresolved. Moreover, uncertainties persist around the legality of remote sales taxation by states and localities.

The lack of a comprehensive framework has led to legal disputes regarding the authority of states and localities to enforce sales tax collection. These disputes are costly and often lead to protracted and unpredictable outcomes. Given the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, there is a call for federal legislation to establish nationwide parameters for state taxation of remote sales. Such legislation would provide clarity, address complexities, and enhance the system's overall efficiency.

Concluding Remarks

As e-commerce sales continue to surge, the landscape of remote sales taxation has evolved significantly. However, challenges to creating an equitable, economically efficient, and administratively sound tax system persist. The GAO recommends that Congress collaborate with states to establish coherent nationwide guidelines for remote sales taxation. Striking the right balance between state interests and multistate complexities could lead to a more efficient and transparent remote sales tax system while clarifying legal uncertainties.


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